“Smart motorways are the safer option, we all need to look at the facts”

Hugo Griffiths sees too much emotion bound up in the debate over smart motorways when factual analysis is needed.

opinion

Every week a new story seems to come out about smart motorways, and each time the narrative is the same. If most articles are to be believed, these roads are dangerous death traps from which any motorist is lucky to escape with their life.

Problem is, this is simply not true. Smart motorways are empirically, statistically, factually, the safest type of road in this country. You may not like it, but to say otherwise is to engage in a falsehood. 

Let’s look at the facts - they’re often underrated these days. It is a fact, for example, that the risk presented by breaking down in a live lane on a smart motorway is far higher than doing so on a conventional one. It’s 216 per cent riskier, to be precise - although that sounds less scary if expressed as being three times more dangerous, which is roughly what a 216 per cent increase translates as. 

So how can smart motorways be safer than conventional ones? Because breaking down in a live lane is only one type of risk, and these roads reduce almost every other type of collision danger. The risks presented by a tailgating driver? They’re lower on a smart motorway. The risks presented by a driver losing control of their vehicle? Lower on a smart motorway. Unsafe lane changes, speeding drivers, “sudden weaving” - all these aspects of poor driving are more dangerous on a conventional motorway. 

Add the percentages up and smart motorways are safer than conventional ones thanks to the increased monitoring they are subject to, and because lane closures and speed-limit changes can mitigate risks that may be present at any one time. 

A huge focus of road safety is about managing danger. We could reduce the motorway speed limit to 5mph and eliminate almost all risk, but the result would be total gridlock. Travelling at 70mph presents dangers we as a nation are happy to face. Smart motorways change the weightings of the risks we face, but reduce dangers overall.

Strategists and analysts deal with macro-level considerations such as these on a daily basis - just ask a healthcare chief about the Quality Adjusted Life Year (QALY), or a train company boss about the Value of Preventing a Fatality (VPF). Smart motorways are risk management writ large; they exist to reduce congestion by increasing capacity, both to prevent jams and to stop people diverting onto less safe A and B roads. And if you’re wondering why we don’t just widen motorways or build new ones, there isn’t really the money, space or appetite to do this, while in some environments (such as urban ones), widening or building are simply not possible. 

It is easy to understand how the narrative that has emerged around smart motorways has become so erroneous. It is a very complicated subject for one thing, and I have been guilty in the past of not always looking at all sides of it. Similarly, Highways England has previously failed to properly recognise or engage with people’s concerns about these new types of road, while the fear of breaking down in a live lane with no hard shoulder in sight is a visceral one, and Stopped Vehicle Detection systems are neither as effective nor as commonplace as they should be.

But cars don’t generally travel at 70mph one moment, then come to a complete stop the next. Most vehicles give warning signs - either with mechanical symptoms or dashboard lights - before they stop working. Keeping your vehicle and its tyres in good condition helps mitigate risks, and chances are that if you get into difficulties on a smart motorway, you will be able to make it to a refuge area or slip road, or tuck yourself right up against the nearside crash barrier, which you can then get well behind. 

There have been, of course, tragedies where people die on smart motorways - 35 over five years by one count - and my heart goes out to the families affected by these incidents. But deaths happen on all types of road every day, and we don’t call these roads “death traps”; don’t forget, either, that 100 people are killed or injured on hard shoulders annually. 

I was recently asked to take part in a live radio interview on this subject, and in the preliminary chat the producer asked me: “which side of this debate are you on?” This combative, for and against approach is emblematic of much of the media’s current method of framing discussions, and it is unhelpful in the extreme. 

There are more than two perspectives on smart motorways, just as there are on countless other topics; it does audiences no favours to turn everything into a simplistic argument of binary, oppositions. We need to move beyond this high-octane, high-temperature combative and argumentative approach, which wouldn’t be out of place in a school playground. Instead, we should deploy balanced, measured, fact-based debate, where audiences are spoken to as if they are sentient human beings, capable of holding two competing ideas in their heads at any one time, and working out that the truth probably lies somewhere in-between them. For what it’s worth, this describes almost every person I’ve ever met. 

If any of the above sounds heartless, it’s not meant to. A nervous driver is a less effective driver; my aim is to use facts and reason to assuage some of the anxiety people feel about these roads.

Where do you stand on the smart motorway debate? Have your say in the comments...

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